Moldovans to Choose Their President for First Time in 20 YearsBy
Country holds first direct presidential elections since 1996
Socialist, pro-EU candidates favorites to reach run-off vote
Voters in Moldova will choose their president for the first time in 20 years in elections seen as a tug-of-war between Russia and the European Union for influence.
Nine candidates are contesting Sunday’s elections in the former Soviet republic, with polls showing the most likely outcome will be a run-off between the pro-Russian Socialist Party’s Igor Dodon and the pro-European Action and Solidarity’s Maia Sandu.
“What’s at stake in this election, and I’m not exaggerating, is for the Republic of Moldova to be or not to be,” Dodon, 41, said in a phone interview Thursday. “Will the current authorities, who mocked the people for seven years and created a corrupt oligarchic system, stay or will changes start?”
The vote in the nation of 3.6 million wedged between Romania and Ukraine is taking place a year after Europe’s poorest country was plunged into crisis over a $1 billion bank fraud that led to the ouster of Prime Minister Valeriu Strelet in a no-confidence vote. The theft, equal to an eighth of Moldova’s economic output, forced the authorities to seek international aid to avert bankruptcy and to concede the restoration of direct presidential elections amid angry street protests over corruption.
Lawmakers in the parliamentary republic previously chose the head of state after the abolition of direct elections following a 1996 vote. Since 2009, Moldova’s ruling coalitions have tilted the country away from Russia and toward closer ties with the European Union, joining Ukraine and Georgia in signing association agreements with the bloc in 2014.
“I believe in European values and that EU integration is the appropriate development” for Moldova, Sandu, 44, said in a phone interview on Thursday. “This presidential election can be the start of a real fight against corruption” and the development of a “state based on the rule of law,” she said.
Her chances of making the run-off were boosted when another leading pro-European candidate, Marian Lupu, withdrew his candidacy on Wednesday to avoid splitting support from voters who favor closer EU ties. “It’s important for Moldova to continue on its track of European integration,” he told reporters.
Dodon has pledged to restore “friendly relations” with Russia and to take Moldova into the Eurasian Economic Union formed by President Vladimir Putin with the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, according to the opposition party’s website.
He’s supported by 27 percent of voters, with 9.3 percent favoring Sandu and 7.5 percent backing Lupu, according to an Oct. 6-16 poll of 1,109 people conducted by the Institute for Public Policy in Moldova before Lupu withdrew from the contest. The survey had a margin of error of no more than 2.8 percent.
A candidate needs more than 50 percent of votes to win outright in the election, which requires turnout to exceed one-third of voters. A second-round run-off between the top two candidates will be held two weeks after the vote if no winner emerges on Sunday.
“Moldova will again have to choose between the West and Russia,” said Valeriu Ostalep, a former deputy foreign minister who now heads the Institute of Diplomatic, Political Studies and Security Issues in the capital, Chisinau.
The Moldovan leu, the fourth-worst performer among the currencies of former Soviet republics in the past month, weakened 0.4 percent to 20.0745 at 12:03 p.m in Chisinau.
The bank corruption scandal “significantly impaired” Moldova’s credibility with international partners, Finance Minister Octavian Armasu said in a phone interview Wednesday. “The government had to work hard on stabilizing the economy and to restore the trust of foreign donors.”
Moldova is waiting for the International Monetary Fund to approve a $180 million program next month. The government will use $25 million to help finance a budget deficit that may reach 3.2 percent of economic output this year, while the rest will be used to support the balance of payments and monetary stability, according to Armasu. The IMF deal is key to unlocking about 50 million euro in EU financing and $45 million from the World Bank.
While most power resides in parliament, the president can dissolve the chamber in certain cases and appoint the prime minister after consultations with lawmakers. The head of state can also call referendums and return legislation to lawmakers.
“We’ll use these powers,” Dodon said. “We can hold a referendum to dissolve parliament or increase presidential powers. It will depend on how the government comes to terms with an elected president.”